Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A Fire Upon the Sky

Once, there was a great general. His name was Makalov, and he served only himself. But his skill at arms was great, and his tongue was of purest silver. His men followed him loyally, and his masters believed him a true partisan for their cause. The truth lay elsewhere; but whatever it was, General Makalov's actions never betrayed it.

This is the story of Makalov's war against the hill-people of the east. It was a war over coal: the hill-people had it, and Makalov's masters required it. Their campaign began with diplomacy: the diplomats returned home, less their heads. Makalov was assigned command.

His forces were disunified, as they often were. Each was commanded by a noble of the estate that levied them, each having their own interest in seeing the hill-men humbled. In their armies, there were a hundred skillless peasants for each armoured knight in each noble's command. Makalov, made their master by powers greater than they, was quick to learn their goals, and to use them to his own purpose. It was a game he had long known; one did not find victory when commanding noblemen without learning how to control them. He set them to march, careful to twist their hierarchy to his own purpose; the more loyal among them he put in the lead, the lesser in the rear. His lesson was understood, as he intended it to be.

At the town of Low Ford, Makalov's scouts gave him word of an enemy advance. Makalov put his men into battle formation, and soon saw the hill-men, a cloud of dust rising into the sky above their ranks. Their numbers were far fewer; but most of Makalov's men were peasant levies, fodder for the mill of war. It was, Makalov decided, a fight to his advantage; but by little margin.

The hill-men set camp, and waited. Makalov, well supplied, followed suit. For two days they watched each-other across the river plain; but the nobles grew restive, and barraged Makalov with suits for battle. Makalov waited another day; then, having tested the enemy will, broke camp and marched into the first battle of the war.

The enemy had set for battle perpendicular to the river. To their right was rocky, steep ground, difficult to assault or ascend; to their left was the river. Makalov sent his less loyal nobles to his left, and put the main bulk of his force in the centre. In the enemy's center flapped a great number of coloured flags, symbols of their chiefs, and largest among them was the flag of the red crossed swords: their leader in war, Makalov suspected. Were he to fall, it would be the end of effective resistance.

The hill-men were skilled archers, and barraged Makalov's ranks with arrows as they closed, leaving the river plain strewed with corpses. Their hill-men were more skilled than the levies; but their iron knives were no match for the knights' armor, who cut through their ranks like black-lacquered scythes. In swift succession, three flags fell in the hill-men's centre. Their ranks trembled.

Makalov, watching the battle from the rear with a pocket telescope, smiled thinly. Turning his eye towards the hill-men leader's flag, he saw a dozen men, of odd complexion, talking with the enemy general. They left moments later, heading for the line of battle; Makalov's telescope followed them.

Another flag fell, and the rearmost hillmen had begun to break, when the pennant of one of Makalov's nobles suddenly fell. Makalov gritted his teeth. The foreigners were killing the knights: moving quickly, aiming for the vulnerable seams, they caught the knights unprepared. Four fell, to an equal number of foreigners lost; but the nobles, panicked by their sudden vulnerability, lost their nerve. The centre fell back, and the other wings of the army, belatedly, followed. Arrows fell upon them as they staggered back, exploiting their uncoordination.

General Makalov watched the blood-spattered nobles as they staggered up to his command tent. "How could you allow this debacle?" they complained. "What general are you? You did nothing but sit and wait, before the battle and after?"

Makalov, his face impassive, ignored them. Turning to the man at his side, who had been patiently waiting for several minutes, Makalov said, "You may give your report now."

"Yes, sir!" the soldier replied. "Per your orders, we attacked the enemy supply train while the hill-men were engaged in battle. They were guarded more heavily than we expected, so our planned raid on the chieftains' tents drew off only part of their number, and the remainder managed to give warning of the real attack before they died. Still, we destroyed over half the enemy supplies before we were forced to retreat. Five men died."

"I'll expect a full report later," Makalov told the soldier. "Dismissed." Pointedly, he turned to the noblemen.

Most of them were silent. One, wearing a helmet forged in the shape of a lion's head, lifted his visor. He was young, and indignant. "The entire battle was just a diversion?" he complained. "The six noblemen who died - four to those foreigners and two to archery - they died for nothing more than a, than a feint?"

Makalov allowed himself to smile. "Perhaps. I might have hoped that you would have held and won the day in open battle, but I thought it was a bit much to ask of you gentlemen. My contingency plan seems, in hindsight, quite justified. I trust you take my point."

Another noble answered tersely: "We understand you perfectly. The Duke will hear of this, of course."

"Why, I know. I will be telling him," Makalov answered, still smiling. "Is there anything else?"

There wasn't.

As predicted, the hillmen fell into retreat - without their supplies, they could not remain. Half their army left at once, fleeing for the hills. With them went most of the coloured flags, including the red crossed swords. Three remained in the river plain, along with the other half of the army, which had decamped, but made no movement otherwise.

Makalov's nobles counseled haste. "Let us smash the cowardly hill-huggers!" one shouted at Makalov. He remained unmoved. "Their archers are deadly, and I would not be surprised if those well-trained foreign mercenaries remained in the ranks of those who remain," he told his nobles patiently. "A victory here would prove nothing. They know that they cannot win on our turf - all that remains is to defeat them on their own. Then we will have won. Until that opportunity arises, we will proceed... cautiously."

Makalov's nobles threatened mutiny.

Makalov executed the ringleader of their plot on the spot.

Makalov's nobles quieted down.

The army advanced, towards the hills. The hill-men that remained retreated steadily before them. They attempted to set ambushes; Makalov's caution, and his scouts, unraveled them. After the second attempt, which lost the hill-men a hundred archers and one of their three remaining chiefs, they gave up.

Two months' travel brought General Makalov's army to the edge of the hill-country. The nobles were restless, but after the fate of their brief mutiny, they were too fearful to try anything. Makalov, for his own part, was increasingly worried: the other half of the hillmen army, despite having plenty of time to resupply and regroup with their severed comrades, had yet to appear. The scouts Makalov had dispatched to follow them had vanished. Something was wrong.

Word reached them from the rear. "Low Ford is burning!" the messenger cried. "The hill-men have struck, unified with a thin-skin army! All the estates from there to the Hazings are besieged - some have fallen! You must return at once!"

Makalov put his head in his hands. They had circled around him - the foreigners were no mercenaries, but emissaries of the thin-skins, the Lethires. Finding common purpose in hatred of Makalov's masters, they resupplied and struck at his rear, left undefended when the levies were taken in Makalov's army.

"You heard him!" the nobles exclaimed. "We must return, and guard what is left of our estates! There is nothing more to win here!"

Makalov remained silent. The messenger spoke more, telling of the estates lost and atrocities perpetrated. Then he looked up.

"You four. Your estates are waste and ruin. There is nothing left for you." Furious, they agreed. "The others will leave. You will remain, with your forces, with me." General Makalov's voice was cold.

A hubbub of dissent and argument broke out.

Makalov drew his sword.

They shut up and left.

Makalov mused. "To defeat your enemy, you must know him. I have seen the heart of the enemy. Now, to show them what I have learned... tricky, but it can be done."

When the rest of the army had departed, Makalov gathered his four remaining nobles together. "You have lost everything," he reminded them. "The hill-men have wrought ruin upon you. Now it is your turn to return the favor. I am the only channel for your revenge. Follow me, obey me absolutely, and you will gain what you so richly deserve. Disobey me, and you will reap only death."

They agreed. Makalov went into the army, what of it remained, and performed a similar speech. The men cheered; a bitter cheer, full of anger and lust for retribution.

Makalov smiled.

The campaign was long, but there is little to say of it. Makalov led his reduced force in groups into the hills, slipping past the half-army that had obstructed them along the way. They sacked village after village, looting everything not nailed down and killing everything that moved. The nobles' armor was covered with blood. Makalov watched, and planned. And the sky was lit red, reflecting the fires below.

After months of carnage, Makalov deigned to offer terms. At the appointed time and place, the hill-man general arrived, his eyes filled with horror. As Makalov had suspected, the war in his homeland had bogged down; his masters had other armies, and the thin-skins were reluctant to commit fully to the war. The terms the hill-men asked for were conditional surrender, offering their coal for peace; Makalov demanded utter subjugation. Reluctantly, they agreed.

Laden with blood-stained loot from the campaign, Makalov's troops marched home. He was glad that he was not forced to betray his masters; they were powerful indeed, and the thin-skins would make poor substitutes.

Thus did General Makalov campaign.

Author's Note: Another partial inspiration from the link in the previous post, also somewhat inspired by a post idea I thought of over a month ago, but never wrote. (Contemporaneous with Resolution.) I'd appreciate comments on this one, I think - not sure if I like it. But I always want comments, so what's new there?


King Kessler said...

Yaaaay Makolov! I mean Makalov! It's a bit unclear.

If all the posts I haven't read yet are this wordy, I'll never catch up! D:

Cavalcadeofcats said...

..oops. I'll standardize his name, I suppose. I feel a little silly about it. Thanks for the comment, though!